Who was Columba?

The facts about Columba’s life can be briefly summarized as follows.  Columba was born in  521 in Gartan Co. Donegal.  He was originally given the name Crimthann which means 'fox' or the 'deceitful one' but according to legend was given the name Colmcille , meaning 'dove of the church' by his companions. He is also known as Columba and Columb.  He founded a monastery in Derry in 545, departed from Derry for Iona in 563 where he founded the monastery of Iona. He died on Iona in 597.  However that is only the beginning of the story. It is in his legacy that the significance of his life emerges.

He set in train the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland and the north of England and from his example the monastic influence and traditions were spread into many countries in Europe. Many of these monasteries survive today.  The tradition of scholarship, which he espoused, led to the extraordinary literary and artistic achievements of the Columban churches, the best known of which is the Book of Kells. The history and folklore associated with Columba himself has been celebrated in many books, with the earliest  poem about him, dating from early in the  7th century.

Columba’s story is intertwined with that of Derry and he is a saint whose heritage is shared and recognized by both main religious traditions in this city. The St. Columba Heritage Centre will not only explore the early history of the monastic foundation of the city and the links with Columba but it will also celebrate the wider history and heritage of the saint and look at the contribution his legacy has made to art and literature.

His memory has been kept alive for over 1400 years through literature, folklore, poetry and sculpture, manuscript making and metal work, history and archaeology.  There are many sites associated with him, which are visible today throughout the landscape of Ireland and Scotland.

Possibly the best known story about Columba is that of the origins of the issue of copyright. It is told that Columba once secretly copied a book of Psalms that belonged to Saint Finnian. When this was discovered Finnian wanted the copy returned to him. The High King Dearmait, presided over the judgement, which returned ownership of the copy to Finnian.  In making this decision the High King uttered the famous judgement
“to every cow its calf, to every book its copy”
This has been deemed since to be influential in forming the basis of copyright law. It is believed by some scholars that a book, called the Cathach, now in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, is that same book which was copied by Columba. 

Another tradition associated with Columba is that of the use of Gartan clay. This clay is reputed to protect against drowning and burning and was frequently sewed into the lining of the clothes of emigrants leaving Ireland for countries as a protection against danger on the journey.